Thinking About Surface Book with Performance Base

Posted on January 18, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 26 Comments

Thinking About Surface Book with Performance Base

In the coming weeks, I will finally get to evaluate Microsoft’s new high-end Surface Book offering, called Surface Book with Performance Base. Given my extensive experience with previous Surface Book models, I have a few thoughts about this ahead of my review.

The theme here is “more”. As Panos Panay said repeatedly during the product’s introduction last October—and again in a corresponding blog post—Surface Book with Performance Base is all about “more.” As in “more rendering power, faster framerates, and additional battery life.” I will be evaluating the device with that in mind, and comparing it to the original Surface Book i7 with dGPU which first shipped a year earlier. (And which I like quite a bit, despite reliability issues that continue to this day.)

Is it suitable for gaming? While the original Surface Book i7 with dGPU is unsuitable for modern AAA games, this new version provides “twice the graphics processing power” of those models, courtesy of a new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M dGPU with 2 GB of RAM. More to the point, this is the first (and only) Surface device aimed specifically at gamers. We shall see.

Why is there no quad-core processor option? While the dGPU in the Performance Base models is a huge improvement over the original dGPU, the processor offerings have not changed. So Surface Book with Performance Base still offers only a dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, and it’s still a 6th generation version, which you will recall was the source of so many Surface issues in 2016. Competing devices like Apple’s new MacBook Pro offer faster quad-core processors, though they too are previous-generation versions.

I’m excited but realistic about the battery life. With the understanding that manufacturer battery life claims are always bogus, Microsoft’s stated rating for the Surface Book with Performance Base—up to 16 hours—is still of great interest. That’s a 25 percent improvement over the previous models, which came in at 12 hours of battery life. Supposedly: I never see much more than half that. But 8 or so hours of battery life would be fantastic.

Keyboard. To achieve the improved battery life, Microsoft did something radical in this age of ever-thinner devices: It added more batteries, which necessitated a thicker and heavier base. I’m OK with this, as the resulting raised and angled keyboard now better fills the teardrop-shaped space left by Surface Book’s weird hinge when the device is closed. But I’m curious if this impact Surface Book’s excellent typing experience.

Fan noise. Like all modern PCs, Surface devices are prone to fan noise at times both expected and not. But the design changes to the Performance Base models necessitated a change to the cooling system as well, with Microsoft adding a second fan. We should always be nervous about new hardware implementations like this, so I will be looking at whether this change makes for a louder device in normal usage.

What hasn’t changed. For the most part, Surface Book with Performance Base is unchanged from the Surface Book that first shipped in late 2015, with the same basic form factor, same screen, same web cams, same keyboard and touchpad, same expansion ports, same awkward headphone jack placement, and so on.

Pricing. Given the extravagant pricing of the new MacBook Pro, and what I perceive to be Microsoft’s pricing strategy for Surface, it is perhaps time for me to rethink this device’s pricing. A non-Performance Base Surface Book with a Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of storage, and a (lower-spec) dGPU costs $2700. The Performance Base version of that device—with better graphics and battery—costs just $2800, only a $100 premium. (The versions with 1 TB of SSD storage are likewise just $100 apart.) So Microsoft isn’t exactly gouging customers for the upgrade, though of course we’re very much in premium PC territory to begin with. Assuming nothing is worse about the new models, Performance Base seems like a no-brainer if you were going i7/dGPU anyway.

I’m excited to finally get my hands on this new Surface Book, and hopefully that happens soon enough for me to test in a very real-world way on my next (epic) trip. More on that soon.


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